The Quit India Movement

World War II took an alarming turn for India when Japan made a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 and destroyed their 20 warships and about 250 aircraft. Next day, the Japanese forces occupied Shanghai and Thailand. On the third day, they sank two British battleships, the Repulse  and the Prince of Wales.  The Allies were being crippled. It looked difficult for the British to be able to defend India effectively against Japan. To take stock of the new dangers to the security and defence of the country, the Congress Working Committee met at Bardoli on December 23, 1941. It told the British in unequivocal terms that it could not offer voluntary help to the imperialist cause until India was granted freedom. In what way was the arrogant imperialism better than the authoritarian fascism ?

The dawn of the year 1942 made the situation worse for the Allied powers. There were further major reverses for them. Singapore fell on February 15, 1942. Next was the turn of Malaya. Then Burma (now Myanmar) went into the hands of the Japanese. Its capital, Rangoon (now Yangon) was occupied by the enemy on March 9, 1942. All these setbacks shattered the morale of British imperialism. It had to reconcile with India at this critical hour to seek her cooperation in the war effort. There was also mounting pressure from her allies. President Franklin D. Roosevelt of America, Chiang Kai-shek of China and Lester Pearson of Canada asked British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to do something positive to reach an under­stand­ing with the Indian leaders. The British Government, therefore, decided on March 11, 1942 to send Sir Stafford Cripps, Lord Privy Seal and leader of the House of Commons, to India to meet the political leaders to find a solution to the Indian problem.

Sir Stafford Cripps reached Delhi on March 22, 1942. He was known to be a personal friend of Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian leaders. He was a socialist and had the reputation of being sympathetic to the Indian cause. The proposals he had brought were, however, not so favourable. He offered the dominion status to India at the end of the War and recognised the right of the Indian people to frame their own constitution through a Constituent Assembly with the right to secede. The provinces as well as the princes were free to accept or reject the new constitution and maintain their existing links with the empire. The Indians were to be associated with the governance of the country by reconstituting the Viceroy’s Executive Council with an interim government of party leaders, but the responsibility for the defence of the country had to remain with the Viceroy.

The Cripps’ proposals, thus, envisaged the postponement of grant of freedom to a distant date at the end of the War. Mahatma Gandhi, therefore, described them as a “post-dated cheque” on a “crashing bank”. He told Cripps, “Why did you come if this is what you had to offer ? I advise you to take the next plane home.” Jawaharlal Nehru also did not view them with favour as “the existing structure of government would continue exactly as before, the autocratic power of the Viceroy would remain, and a few of us would become his liveried camp-followers and look after canteens and the like.” Apart from the Congress, the proposals were also rejected by other parties, like the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Sikhs. Sir Stafford Cripps had, therefore, to go back to London on April 12, 1942 as a disappointed person.

The failure of the Cripps Mission disheartened the people. The day Cripps left was Sunday. Monday was Gandhiji’s day of silence. He pondered over the difficult situation as to what could be the solution. His inner voice spoke two words “Quit India”. The British should leave India to its fate. In his paper, Harijan,  he wrote on April 26, 1942, “Whatever the conse­quences, therefore, to India, its real safety and Britain’s too, lies in the orderly and timely British withdrawal from India.” He reiterated again on May 24, 1942, “Leave India in God’s hands; or in modern parlance, to anarchy. Then all parties will fight one another like dogs or when real responsibility faces them,  they will come to a reasonable agreement.”

The Working Committee of the Con­gress met at Wardha. It continued its deli­berations for many days over Gandhiji’s new slogan to the nation. On July 14, 1942, the Committee passed a long resolution known as the “Quit India” resolution. It demanded that the British rule in India must end immediately and power should be transferred to the Indians to enable them to defend their country as well as saving the world from perils of Nazism, Fascism and militarism. If this just and reasonable demand was not accepted, the Congress would be reluctantly compelled to start a non-violent agitation of direct action. A meeting of the All-India Congress Committee was accordingly convened in Bombay to endorse this resolution.

The government paid no heed to the resolution of the Working Committee. The Viceroy refused to meet Mira Ben whom the Congress had sent to him for explaining the Working Committee’s resolution. It was clear that the government would not yield. The All-India Congress Committee, which assembled in Bombay on August 7, 1942, therefore, endorsed the resolution of the Working Committee by an overwhelming majority and proposed the starting of a mass, non-violent struggle under the leadership of Gandhiji. Addressing the delegates on the night of August 8, 1942, Gandhiji said:

“I want freedom immediately, this very night, before dawn, if it can be had. Freedom cannot wait for the realisation of communal unity. Congress must win freedom or be wiped out in the effort.”

“Here is a mantra,  a short one that I give. You may imprint it on your hearts and let every breath of yours give expression to it. The mantra  is: ‘Do or Die’. We shall either free India or die in the attempt; we shall not live to see the perpetuation of our slavery.”

Early on the morning of August 9, 1942, Gandhiji and other Congress leaders were arrested. The All-India Congress Committee and all the Provincial Congress Committees were declared unlawful. Thousands of Congress workers were thrown into jails. The headquarters of the Congress at Allahabad was sealed and Congress funds confiscated. Gandhiji was lodged at Poona in Aga Khan Palace and the other leaders were detained in Ahmednagar fort. Next day, Kasturba Gandhi got herself arrested by attempting to address a meeting at Bombay in which Gandhiji was scheduled to speak before his arrest.

The news of the arrest of the nationalist leaders caused a wave of indignation among the people. If the government thought that they would be able to suppress them, it proved to be wrong. There were demonstrations, meetings and hartals  all over the country. National songs and slogans demanding release of the leaders filled the air. In the beginning, the crowds were peaceful, but when the police tried to control them by force, they became violent. In Delhi alone, the police opened fire forty-seven times upon peaceful demonstrators in which 76 persons were killed and 114 were injured during the two days, i.e., August 11 and 12, 1942. Similar incidents took place in other cities like Bombay, Ahmedabad and Poona. The workers and students organised strikes in factories, colleges and schools. At times, the mobs destroyed the police posts, post offices and railway stations, considered to be the symbols of the foreign rule. The revolutionary groups also attempted to cut telephone wires and damage railway tracks. In rural areas, the peasants refused to pay taxes to the government. At many places, they were able to paralyse the local administrative machinery completely and set up their own governments. Prominent among them were Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, Midnapore in Bengal and Satara in Maharashtra. At Ballia, the people opened the jail. One of the prisoners installed himself as “Swaraj Tehsildar” and set up the panchayati raj. At Tamluk in Midnapore district, a national government was established. At Satara, the people set up a parallel government known as the Patri Sarkar.  In the then Madras Presidency, the railway line between Renigunta and Bezwada (now Vijayawada) was uprooted. In many other areas, the peasantry resorted to the guerilla resistance to the British rule which continued for quite a long time. The leaders of the underground movement were Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia.

The government claimed that it had largely been able to suppress the movement within a month and crush it completely by the end of the year. For this, it arrested 60,000 people, detained 18,000 without trial, resorted to firing 533 times, killing 940 and injuring 1,630 people. These figures were bound to be far less than the actual number of arrests and casualties. These sacrifices did not go in vain as they were able to bring freedom to the country within a span of five years on August 15, 1947. Prime Minister Churchill boasted on November 10, 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British empire.” The mighty empire, however, collapsed later in his own lifetime.

For putting the robes of legitimacy on its policy of repression, the government blamed the Congress leadership for the disturbances and violence in 1942 and claimed that it had evidence to vindicate its charges. How could Gandhiji swallow this false-hood? He complained to the Viceroy that he had been misjudged and challenged the government to try him and the members of the Working Committee on the charges of fostering and abetting violence. As the government turned a deaf ear to all his pleas and protests, Gandhiji undertook a fast of 21 days from February 10, 1943, a last resort of a true satyagrahi.  It caused great resentment among the people, but produced no effect on the Viceroy.

Midway during the fast, Gandhiji’s health deteriorated to the point of death. This was bound to cause anxiety all over the country. A non-party conference met at Delhi and requested the government to release him immediately. But the British authorities were adamant and refused to release him until he withdrew the “Quit India” movement. As a protest against this heartless approach, three members of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Homi Modi, M. S. Aney and N. R. Sarkar tendered their resignations. The government was prepared to face the eventuality of Gandhiji’s death and had made complete arrangements for his funeral, but God saved him for the nation. He completed his self-imposed ordeal of three weeks on March 3, 1943 by accepting a glass of orange juice from Kasturba, his devoted wife.

Unfortunately, this was the last occasion on which Kasturba was to be near Gandhiji at the end of his fast. She had volun­tarily shared the rigours of imprisonment with him. But this had adverse effect on her health. She had not been maintaining good health for many months. She became seriously ill with chronic bronchitis in December 1943 and breathed her last on February 22, 1944 with her head resting on Gandhiji’s lap. They had lived together for sixty-two years. Her death left a void which could never be filled up. Barely six weeks after her death, Gandhiji suffered a severe stroke of tertian malaria and the government released him on May 6, 1944. This was his last stay in jail. Altogether, he had spent 2,338 days in jail during his life—2,089 days in India and 249 days in South Africa.   

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